NFL1000: Identifying Early Breakout Candidates
From Dolphins safety Reshad Jones and Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham to Redskins offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe and Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, every season features breakout players who unexpectedly help their teams to success.
This season, we've identified eight players who appear to have breakout potential in 2017 due to opportunity and elevated performance. You won't find any rookies here, nor will we highlight players who have already met their potential.
The following players had great games in Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season, and they're all looking to prove it was no fluke. We believe each one has the talent to do so.
Trevor Siemian, QB, Denver Broncos
The quarterback competition in Denver has been going full-bore since the day Peyton Manning retired. In 2016, there was no clear winner.
Trevor Siemian, a seven round quarterback from Northwestern, was thought to have the requisite acumen and work ethic to succeed but less overt physical ability than 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch. Siemian won the starting job during the preseason, but he didn't appear likely to make the kind of explosive plays required from any quarterback.
That may no longer be the case after Denver's 24-21 season-opening win over the Chargers. Siemian completed 17 of 28 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and he added another score as a rusher. More importantly, he made deep completions more efficiently than he did in 2016.
Last season, Siemian completed just 14 of 48 passes that went 20 or more yards in the air for 558 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, per Pro Football Focus. Against Los Angeles on Monday night, Siemian was good for two deep completions on three attempts for 73 yards.
Throughout the night, Siemian had Denver's offense in rhythm. Though his interception was on an ugly screen attempt and the Chargers dropped another potential interception, he demonstrated a developing sense of the intricacies of quarterback play with the way he threw into tight windows and directed defenders with his eyes at times.
Siemian still telegraphs his reads too often, but that can be corrected. He now looks like a quarterback who is merging his mental acuity for the game with an expanded skill set.
Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots
In 2016, no running back was more efficient on a per-carry basis than Mike Gillislee, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. The 26-year-old gained 577 yards and scored eight rushing touchdowns on 101 carries, showing power in the red zone and speed and agility in open space. When the Patriots outbid the Bills for his services this offseason, Gillislee appeared poised to replace LeGarrette Blount as New England's primary goal-line back.
Gillislee got off to a great start against the Chiefs on the season's opening night with three rushing touchdowns. He found it tough sledding against Kansas City's outstanding run defense at times, but he did break off a few nice outside runs. Against the Saints in Week 2, he should get a reprieve from difficult defensive lines.
Gillislee is a natural zone runner who gets to and through the hole quickly. He's also good in pass protection and has an ability to get open on quick routes out of the backfield. New England's backfield rotation is full of role players, but don't be surprised if Gillislee winds up as the top man on the depth chart.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft out of Maryland, Stefon Diggs appeared to be on the precipice of a breakout in 2016, when he caught 84 passes on 112 targets for 903 yards and three touchdowns. But if his performance against the Saints on Monday night is any indication, he's about to break out as one of the NFL's most dominant receivers.
Nobody questions Diggs' speed and ability to get vertical against cornerbacks to make circus catches, but he also has outstanding body lean to stay inbounds on contested catches to the boundary. The only question is consistency. Diggs torched the Packers for 182 yards in Week 2 of the 2016 season, but after an early-season groin injury, he never quite found his stride again. He was productive, but not at the level his athletic gifts would indicate.
In Minnesota's 29-19 win over New Orleans to open the 2017 season, Diggs was everything you'd expect and more. He caught seven of eight targets for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Three of those catches and one of the touchdowns came on throws of 20 or more air yards. The deep touchdown was on a busted coverage, but his second score came on a great leaping catch with a defender hanging all over him. On that catch, and on a 30-yarder to the right boundary, Diggs worked his body well to stay inbounds.
Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford had the best game of his career Monday against the Saints. If Diggs can stay healthy and continues playing at this level, there's no reason to suspect it was a fluke.
Nelson Agholor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles selected Nelson Agholor 20th overall out of USC in 2015, but he has yet to live up to his potential.
In his first two NFL seasons, Agholor struggled to find his role in the Eagles' system, and he didn't look right against physical cornerbacks. He always had the speed and route-running ability to be special, but at 6'0" and 198 pounds, he wasn't cut out for the grungier aspects of the position.
Philadelphia's decision to send Jordan Matthews to Buffalo opened up a permanent slot role for Agholor, and four of his six catches against the Redskins in Week 1 came from the slot. He also found himself on the receiving end of one of the weekend's best plays, for which he deserves no shortage of credit.
While quarterback Carson Wentz was scrambling around on 3rd-and-12 trying to elude pressure, Agholor did an outstanding job of breaking off his inside route from the left inside slot, and he ran to the left sideline to align himself with Wentz. That's a great example of a receiver thinking himself wide-open.
He also made an acrobatic catch of a bad Wentz screen pass after an inside pre-snap motion. Overall, he impressed when asked to find open areas in coverage.
Agholor caught just 36 passes on 69 targets for 365 yards and two touchdowns in 2016. But as his six-catch, 86-yard performance against the Redskins showed, he could be a natural as the Eagles' primary slot receiver.
Trey Flowers, DL, New England Patriots
A dominant postseason won't always lead to great things in seasons to come, but that does seem to be the case for Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers. The fourth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2015 had seven sacks in the 2016 regular season and then went off as the Pats drove to their fifth Super Bowl title, amassing 2.5 quarterback takedowns in Super Bowl LI.
In the season opener against the Chiefs, Flowers picked up right where he left off. While Kansas City scored the 42-27 upset win, Flowers was a star from start to finish, as he sacked Alex Smith twice and registered six quarterback hurries. On the first sack, he used his hands to get free of left tackle Eric Fisher and chased Smith across the pocket for a takedown. He touts impressive athleticism for a 6'2”, 268-pounder who can create havoc in multiple gaps.
On the second sack, Flowers had moved from right to left defensive end, and he did a great job of engaging his outside blocker and waiting for the gap to open up to the inside. Once that happened, he rushed in and took Smith down again.
Flowers is no one-trick pony, as he's also exceptional at shedding blocks and filling run fits to stop backs. He can roam the field, and he may be New England's most prominent quarterback disruptor in 2017.
Nick Perry, OLB, Green Bay Packers
Injuries stunted Nick Perry's professional development through his first few NFL seasons. The 2012 first-round pick didn't show his full potential until racking up 11 sacks in 2016.
Perry added three quarterback hits and 32 hurries last season. He led Green Bay's outside linebackers in total pressures with 46, which allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to continue to flex fellow pass-rusher Clay Matthews at multiple gaps.
If Perry's performance against Seattle's pathetic offensive line in the Week 1 opener is any indication of what lies ahead, the Packers should be elated. Perry sacked Russell Wilson on Seattle's first drive after he embarrassed Seahawks left tackle Rees Odhiambo on a bull-rush. He continued to terrorize Seattle's underwhelming blockers throughout the game and finished with six total pressures.
Perry isn't just a pass-rusher, though. He's athletic enough to drop into coverage and he's good against the run, too. Lineman Mike Daniels proved to be the most dominant Packers defender against the Seahawks (as he is most weeks), but Perry isn't far behind at this point.
Jatavis Brown, OLB, San Diego Chargers
The Chargers selected Jatavis Brown in the fifth round out of Akron in the 2016 draft, and he only became a starter once Manti Te'o suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. It didn't take him long to begin making a notable impact, though.
At 5'11" and 221 pounds, Brown is more of a run-and-chase player than an old-school thumper, but as the 2016 season went on, he developed tackling techniques to deal with bigger backs and receivers. He became the best coverage linebacker in San Diego's hybrid defense, and he ranked 18th among all inside linebackers in our 2016 NFL1000 season-end rankings.
With new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley taking over in 2017, it was fair to wonder how Brown would transition to more of a traditional weak-side linebacker role. Brown answered that definitively against the Broncos on Monday night, as he led all defenders with 11 solo tackles. He also led all 4-3 outside linebackers in Week 1 with seven run stops.
No matter the scheme, Brown has proven to be a personification of the modern linebacker—tough enough to face up against running backs, versatile enough to drop into coverage against tight ends and quick enough to cover the field to make crucial tackles. Prepare to hear his name frequently throughout the 2017 season.
James Bradberry, CB, Carolina Panthers
Lost in the noise surrounding Josh Norman's departure from the Panthers was how general manager Dave Gettleman found his replacement in the second round of the 2016 draft: Samford's James Bradberry.
Bradberry's small-school background made the pick look like a reach, but the rookie took over as Carolina's top cornerback through the 2016 season and allowed 51 catches on 84 targets for 541 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions and an opponent passer rating of 85.5. Given the level of competition, one can't help but be impressed by those numbers. Bradberry looked like a natural with his boundary speed, ability to track angular routes and aggressiveness.
Against the 49ers in Week 1 of the 2017 season, Bradberry allowed four receptions on seven targets for 42 yards and an opponent passer rating of 74.7. The 49ers mostly went after Bradberry with underneath routes, and he allowed 26 of those 42 yards after the catch. However, he also broke up a deep pass from Brian Hoyer to Marquise Goodwin, as he got his hands in while Goodwin attempted to take the ball in.
Bradberry's long-term prospects look promising because of his versatility. He can play tight or off coverage, and at 6'1” and 211 pounds, he's big enough to deal with the NFL's top receivers.
All advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus.